It was her own peculiar joy, something hard to maintain amongst her everyday life and everyday home, but that came about quite naturally given a little peace and space; to wake up in a half-world of now and fiction. Letting your characters live a bit, such that she could watch the busy street outside the coffee shop back in New York and amongst the brunchers or businessmen catch a glimpse of open-backed trucks of the Imperial German Army load aboard fifty singing boys with their fifty singing rifles; such that amidst the rubber-soled sneakers pounding the wet sidewalk she’d catch a glimpse of ripped leather, bound round and round with rough cloth to keep what they could of the mud from between rotten and rotting toes.
For the rest of the summer she’d live between Ypres and Florida, a century apart, but not half in one world, half in the other — instead, fully in both, so that the smells of brewing coffee and orange blossoms and two-stroke fumes of outboard motors would be the natural bodyguard of the shaking and weeping of teenage boys, and the explosions of muds and guts would sit warmly alongside the fresh apricots, halved, dropped into her natural yoghurt. She let her fear of death temper itself.
After arriving at the beach house late on Thursday night, Alice was too exhausted to eat. She tipped her cab driver handsomely, dumped her suitcase in the bedroom, unzipped the front pocket to remove her laptop. This she set up on the desk that had been pushed in front of the French windows, as she’d requested, ready to start work first thing tomorrow morning. She stepped back and took in the scene briefly — her new writing station for the next two months, till she got this damned book finished. Pleased, she closed the double-doors, shutting out the bright moonlight that reflected off the water, then went to bed, alone but for the condition that would kill her.
In the morning she woke up in the world she’d been putting down on paper, which is a perfect condition for a writer. She planned to do this for the duration of her stay: to have her feet in the Gulf of Mexico and her mind eight feet below the fields of northern France. It was a true story, like her earlier histories, started in the two years since her husband had died. Set in the warren of German trenches late in the First World War, her novel dealt with the relationship between two men, boys really, coping with the crises of attaining your first flush of patriotism just as your Empire reaches its premature death. Loves and political difference came crashing together with the perverse brotherhood of war; the last edit left the heroes pulled apart, one of the boys dying of Spanish flu before the reconciliation was completed. As she sipped from her fresh grapefruit juice and watched the day-trippers leaving the delta in their pleasure cruisers, her mind smelled just mud and sulfur.
She had set a deadline almost as tight as her publishers to get it done, and booked her ticket down from New York just a day or two after her diagnosis. Her reason? Under no circumstances did she want Herald, as she’d named it, to be her last book. People would read too much into it: the war as a metaphor for her “battle” with disease, a metaphor she hated because she knew no amount of struggle could prevent her death. And because she thought Sam, her only and eldest son, would read the surviving soldier as an avatar for himself, presumably because the character’s name was his middle name, Karl. This was not the case, and Alice didn’t want him to have the satisfaction of a tribute in her death. In truth, she’d only started this book in a period when she was blocked. It started as a writing exercise and just formed its own momentum; she wasn’t ashamed, it was a good book, but it was a sandbag to fill a hole. What was important now was her perfect death; to bear her sickness as a last demonstration of her own autonomy. Alice wanted to be remembered properly, having spent her last months preparing her final manuscript before passing with stony-faced solemnity under her own quilt. She’d write the book the illness had finally made viable; the true history of her life, one that could only be inscribed in widowhood and preempting death’s ruthless armistice.
You live on, of course, in your relationships with the still alive, but suddenly they become the tellers of the stories you always told, the memories you remembered. You become something that happened; you are witnessed by your loved ones, and their mourning involves the calcification of your story, the fixing of how-you-made-them-feel. And for some reason this wasn’t enough for Alice; she felt that, for diplomatic reasons, for family reasons, to pacify the hurt of Bill, of being acknowledged for the sum of his actions rather than his self image, the story she’d told and that would therefore be told about her as-if-they-were-her-words was not enough, in the same way Bill being remembered for the story-he-told-of-himself was, if not a grotesque lie, then somehow a significant untruth about the man. A man can die still lying to himself, she thought, but if she had a year till this illness killed her she would use that time to die acknowledged for her truth. She would die, a year from now, surrounded by her family, sick and honest.
The isolation of the beach house was just perfect. She felt it on her skin, and throughout the day would slump back into her chair and just breathe in all this space. The room wasn’t huge, but it was inhabited by her and her alone. This was the escape. Bill was always so present, so unaware of the space he took up. Not just with his lumbering arms, his entering without knocking, his jumping in on conversations she had with her friends. All this but more so, because it was always read as the neutral state. Just him being himself. So even when he was slumped in the stiff armchair by their fire in their little house upstate, quietly reading his book or marking papers, he filled the room with his authority, his comfort in most any situation. After he died she assumed she’d miss his body, like that. And others assumed too, bringing themselves round for dinner, telling her how she’d deal with it, in time. It took two months for her to realize she’d always resented his assumption of power and space.
“It’s not good news” was how her doctor had told her. A year or so, which she figured, with her remaining pension to live off, was enough to finish at least a solid draft of her idea. The rest she’d leave to Jasmine, her trusted editor, to tidy, but then it could go out, her final work.
Something unusual, to surpass even her biggest sellers in the early ’90s. Those popular histories — of women in Italy’s early fascist period, of the history of early balloon pioneers, of dancers at the fin-de-siècle Moulin Rouge — combined with Bill’s income as a professor had put them on solid ground. Raising the kids became less exhausting, and they began to drink wine with every evening meal. Both Sam and Emilia are married now; Sam, to a sweet girl called Sarah, who he met on his master course, who Alice always liked. Emilia, to an asshole, though Alice never remarked. Bill liked the asshole, he said: a banker who took his daughter to the Upper West Side, before moving her on again. And really did take her, moved her. She’d see them when she got back to New York, she told herself, but really, this was her space. For now, she lived here with her German boys.
The truth is she feels closer to these boys, these German boys on the front, than she does to anyone in her life. At first she thinks it’s maternal, but no, it’s not. There’s no desire left in Alice to mother. She identifies with them. She feels a comradely disgust at their treatment. She would like to bind her breasts right now and put on that ceremonial neck armor and feel her own feet trampling the heads of corn into the mud. She would like to lie there beside these beautiful young boys and watch them sleep. Alice found herself dozing, the sensation of a coming attack washing over her.
The rolling heartbeat of distant explosions. Like relationships, like families — from a distance the interactions can seem charming, something to join. There is a harmonious choreography to them, shells lobbed. Because the up-close is disguised in the interaction, the pop, the lob, the battery discharging its munition, the crack as the shell burst explodes overhead. From a promontory overlooking the battlefield it is a wonderful ballet. It has the unique charm of the scale model, the little railway, the eighteenth automata of a whole house moving in concert till the drummer boy completes his turn and the cuckoo emerges on the hour, every hour. The family from a distance looks like that, especially the bourgeois family, her family, who argued about the first gulf war over late summer dinners of artichoke and sourdough in their Brooklyn townhouse.
To Sarah, Sam’s wife, visiting for the first time, their family appeared like a little clockwork Christmas town. Like a battlefield from the high rock, where tracing the strange logic of the byzantine trench work gave a sense of completeness. But to her, her marriage and family had never been seen from a distance. For her the lobbed shell, the beautiful hanging cloud of gunpowder smoke — she saw it from the ground, from underneath. When she had a battery load an eighteen pounder, had the barrel of the gun slide smoothly back, had her men release it with the satisfying and smooth movement of a projectile, unchanged since the Greek Toxotai, he knew about it only when it burst overhead. To the viewer on the hill it popped, but to Bill her words tore apart his eardrums and left him shell-shocked.
If he was lucky. But as she reminded him, she only had to be lucky once. He had to be lucky every time. And more than once she was lucky. She was lucky in 1994, when she told him she’d been having an affair with a literary editor, a younger man of course. Of course because, as she’d told her friend, a younger man would be the only type capable of giving her the space she needed — a younger man who respected her writing and so respected her presence. Unlike with Bill, someone who made her feel as though she was actually there. Not that she was driven to it. Not that Alice was a victim.
She never felt a victim as such. She was punished for being herself, but that is no more victimhood than the writer imprisoned for two decades by an authoritarian state because they cannot bear to hear her words. She is no victim, goddamnit.
But that night she told him, that summer (successful affairs must always begin in spring), on the veranda, with a fly killer buzzing and the dirty ground around the little camper smelling so good, she said:
“Jeez, Bill, I’m sorry but you gotta understand.” (Of course he understood.) “You gotta understand that I’d never thought I’d find love again.”
“You have love,” he thought. “Love doesn’t need to start again. Freshness is not the most important, the most interesting, meaningful manifestation of love. Love rots,” he thought, but did not say. “Fresh love rots into what we have right now. Love rots into the giving mulch. Fresh love rots until one night you stand on the veranda and throw it in the trash.”
And as she walked off and slammed the door of their old station wagon, that he had put down the fucking deposit on whilst she had finished her book on King Edward VIII, that was the moment she got lucky. Her gunners had spent long enough training their guns, improving their aim, each strike closer and closer, until that night they made their most accurate and devastating strike of the entire war. He sat there at ground zero, their dog sniffing at his feet as he could no longer stifle his tears from the sleeping kids and began weeping into his sweater cuffs. Boom went the strings of her heart she thought as she drove away, as the shell exploded feet ahead, spraying the devastating shrapnel of everyday life in hot shards that ripped into her hands, that left her body in the mud, deafened and blinded and choking on gas, her legs torn to ribbons. Bill fed the dog that night. Christ.
He took her back, of course, barely eight weeks later, and she didn’t ask him why, and when he tried to leverage her return as a sign of his love she shut him up curtly, absolutely, immediately. She took him back because she needed him and his income for the kids, and because, hell, she was tired, exhausted, because who isn’t in a place like that? Eventually things returned to how they would have been had this never happened, which he said to her a few years later. “I’m sorry, Alice, so sorry it happened. And I’m glad we are where we would be, I think, had it never happened. We got through it babe,” he said, and hugged her closer. And she thought, but did not say, “Yes, back to you assuming that I’m here, that I’m yours, that I was happy before, ever, that I’m your neutral.” And when her son first brought back Sarah, in college, she could tell this girl was enamored with the family and their easy bourgeois charm. She saw her charmed by Bill’s casual flirtation and stories (Alice too had always, always loved his skill at turning a tale at the dinner table). But she had no confidence that she had raised a son any better than her husband. But who can? Bill was, as men go, a good man. Maybe as good as men get. But no better than a good man, which is itself a low bar. Her son’s girlfriend was viewing the battlefield for the first time, as an American general arriving at the Western Front for the first time. It was a waltz for her, a giant waltz. She had not yet experienced a direct strike. Not yet known the flesh rendered from the bone by the casual cruelty of a man who acts like this is just how things are.
The doctor had signed off on her trip, on the condition she was back in New York by late August to begin treatment. Neither her nor Alice had much hope that the treatment was much more than palliative, but late August was a more convenient time to submit the manuscript for Herald, and early submission would buy her a little good favor with her publisher, who had her down as a notorious late filer. She hadn’t told her publisher — she hadn’t told anyone, not least the kids. With a year left, best to spend six months drafting, in and out for treatment, and really get the meat of her experience down on paper — to bring order to years of notebooks, drawing out the thread of a narrative of sixty years. Then she’d talk. Then she’d talk.
The limo driver loaded her three suitcases into the trunk of her car as she patted herself down for her boarding card and the keys to her apartment back home. She kept her shoulder bag with her, heaving its weight onto the back seat. The exertion pulled her muscles onto her bones; she winced.
“What you got in there?” the cabbie inquired.
“Books,” she replied, rolling her eyes at herself, as if books were her vanity.
Once they were on the freeway she pushed her hand into the bag. Not just notebooks but her favorite novels, ten perhaps, plus some new books she bought with her, intending to read for ages — some translations, new in English, some Didion, some old Iris Murdoch that had escaped her somehow. Despite her reputation as a bibliophile — she’d had a neighbor, a young carpenter, finally put up a bookshelf running up her stairs, narrowing it at the top to one-way traffic, but finally clearing space on the living room floor, beneath the bay windows, for some castor oil plants — she wasn’t precious about the paper itself. It was the work, the work… The stack of books shifting around were dog-eared, rough and folded at the corner, spines snapped.
For years she’d avoided marking books like this. But after her affair, she’d started to bend the top corner of a page whenever she noted a phrase she might want to return to, a little line that deserved a second shot. Marginalia — notes across the text, underlinings — this was still a source of irritation, even anger for her. But unlike a pencil mark bracketing a phrase, something she considered an act of violence against the text, an unwanted, uninvited second author, licentiousness and bigotry, a fold held all the nuance of reading and interpretation. It was a loose signpost twisting in the wind; maybe it was a note to the reader to look again, a peak in the text. But maybe it was a pause, when the reader’s subway train pulled in to Flushing or Mrytle, and she fumbled in her pocket for her Metrocard, or the fucking cat got up on the table and knocked a vase of flowers over, tipping water on the floor and the rug and damn you cat my papers oh jeez, or she just felt sleep weighing at her eyes, and she neatly folded and closed and switched off the light and pulled the covers over her cold shoulders.
Alice’s thumb was brushing over the dog-ears of A Severed Head, feeling that velvet of paper, at the exact moment of steel-eyed death. Her folded corner was the last page; her pause her conclusion. She couldn’t plan her life but she’d felt sure she could plan her death; instead, it was written for her, and she would always exist now as a misremembered story. She would have been moved at the surprisingly unguarded quote Sam gave when phoned for a statement for her obituary — perhaps she had got something through after all, produced a son a touch more attuned to himself and his own presence than his father. The obituary read that she had died aged sixty-six in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a traffic accident, and no one but her doctor would know that this story was supposed to end with less shock and more pathos considered in its trauma. She had been in the Sunshine State finishing her final book, Herald — a tale of camaraderie and unacknowledged love between young German recruits in World War I France — and it will be published this June by Penguin Random House.